Stewart eludes backlash over '98; Steelers are backing their quarterback despite subpar season


Kordell Stewart threw 18 interceptions and just 11 touchdown passes last year, lost his last five starts, was benched twice, got into an argument with his coach on the sideline and then appeared to break down in tears.

That's the kind of performance that costs quarterbacks their jobs.

Instead, the Pittsburgh Steelers fired their offensive coordinator and gave Stewart a $27 million contract extension with an $8.1 million signing bonus that ties him to the team for the next five years. Even Stewart admits he wasn't expecting the Steelers to come to him offering a contract extension after he flamed out last year.

"I won't say surprised, but I didn't expect it to come. It came out of nowhere. As far as the money is concerned, there was no need for extra money. I just want to go and win a Super Bowl and earn it. But they felt they wanted me to be here for a long time. Here I am today having a few extra years under my belt [in Pittsburgh], and I'm glad for that," he said.

The $8.1 million investment was one more sign that the Steelers seem determined to stick with Stewart until he gets it right.

It's an old saying that quarterbacks get too much of the credit when things go well and too much of the blame when they don't.

In Pittsburgh, Stewart tends to get little of the blame.

"I think it's important we all realize we can't blame 1998 entirely on Kordell," said Tom Donahoe, the director of football operations.

When Steelers head coach Bill Cowher was asked yesterday why Stewart struggled, he said: "I think our football team struggled. I don't think it was just any one individual. I really don't get involved too much in rehashing last year. Last year was last year. I'd rather just address this year."

If Stewart does recapture the form he had in 1997 in his first year as a starter, when he took the team to the AFC title game, the Steelers' backing of Stewart will be a model of a team supporting a young quarterback in tough times.

If he doesn't, the Steelers will be seen as throwing good money after bad.

The Steelers are walking on a high wire with Stewart. They didn't bother to go out and get a first-rate backup for Stewart. They're sticking with shopworn veteran Mike Tomczak behind him. The Steelers will go as far as Stewart takes them.

In an effort to get Stewart back on the right track, the Steelers fired offensive coordinator Ray Sherman, who's now running the Minnesota offense, and hired Kevin Gilbride, who was fired as the San Diego head coach last year and is noted mainly for getting punched on the sideline by Buddy Ryan when they were both Houston assistants.

One Chicago writer said bringing in Gilbride after his San Diego experience to save Stewart was akin to sending "the Lusitania to rescue the Titanic."

Cowher, though, raves about Gilbride, who was allowed to bring in his own offense. Sherman had to keep the offense they had used under former coordinator Chan Gailey, now the Dallas head coach, when he was hired last year.

Explaining why he let Gilbride bring in his offense, Cowher said: "Because he's a proven coordinator. I think that's the bottom line. I think last year the situation was a little bit different because losing Chan Gailey in February didn't give me a whole lot of options to pick from."

The option he picked last year was Sherman, who left Minnesota and wound up being the designated scapegoat for the Steelers' collapse to 7-9.

Not surprisingly, Sherman said Stewart should take some of the responsibility.

While Cowher declines to revisit last year, he says Gilbride is the perfect fit with Stewart.

Cowher also said that Stewart, criticized last year by Tomczak for not working hard enough on the job, is committed to improving.

"He's been very receptive. He turned down going to the Quarterback Challenge and a number of golf opportunities and stayed around here and spent a lot of hours with Kevin when nobody else was in this building. He was very much committed to doing what it took to turn around from the disappointment we all felt a year ago," Cowher said.

Stewart and Cowher both deny this is a make-or-break year for Stewart, but it's up to Stewart to live up to the confidence the Steelers showed in him in the off-season.

Gilbride and Stewart may get their first real test Sunday when they come to Baltimore to face the Ravens.

Cowher, who tends to run a Club Med training camp, kept the new offense under wraps during the exhibition season.

In its debut last Sunday night, Stewart completed 15 of 23 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown against the new Cleveland Browns. But the Browns are an expansion team and played like one. Tomczak completed all eight of his passes. Even third-teamer Pete Gonzalez completed his only throw.

The game against the Ravens will be a better test of whether Stewart has improved, because he played poorly in both games against the Ravens last year. He was intercepted three times in the two games and threw only two touchdown passes, but the Steelers won both games mainly by capitalizing on mistakes by the Ravens.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers

Site: PSINet Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Steelers by 2 1/2

Tickets: Sold out

Pub Date: 9/16/99

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